Women are not often thought of in association with the Populists, but the best-known orator of the movement in the early 1890s was a woman, Mary Elizabeth Lease. Born in Pennsylvania in 1850 to Irish parents, Lease became a school teacher in Kansas in 1870. She and her husband, a pharmacist, spent ten years trying to make a living farming, but finally gave up in 1883 and settled in Wichita. Lease entered political life as a speaker for the Irish National League, and later emerged as a leader of both the Knights of Labor and the Populists. Lease mesmerized audiences in Kansas, Missouri, the Far West, and the South with her powerful voice and charismatic speaking style. In hundreds of speeches, she apparently never said the one phrase most often associated with her name—the injunction that farmers should “raise less corn and more hell.” Regardless of who called explicitly for more hell-raising, Lease was a powerful voice of the agrarian crusade.
This is a nation of inconsistencies. The Puritans fleeing from oppression became oppressors. We fought England for our liberty and put chains on four million of blacks. We wiped out slavery and our tariff laws and national banks began a system of white wage slavery worse than the first.
Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.
The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master. The West and South are bound and prostrate before the manufacturing East.
Money rules, and our Vice-President is a London banker. Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags.
The [political] parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us. . . . The politicians said we suffered from overproduction. Overproduction, when 10,000 little children, so statistics tell us, starve to death every year in the United States, and over 100,000 shopgirls in New York are forced to sell their virtue for the bread their niggardly wages deny them. . . .
We will stand by our homes and stay by our fireside by force if necessary, and we will not pay our debts to the loan-shark companies until the government pays its debts to us. The people are at bay; let the bloodhounds of money who dogged us thus far beware.
Source: W.E. Connelley, ed., History of Kansas, State and People 2, (1928), 1167.
See Also:A Woman's Work: Mary Lease Celebrates Women Populists